When To Start Reverse Dieting (5 Signs To Know)

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Reverse dieting has taken social media by storm, and some claim that implementing it following a dieting phase is the key to unlocking your dream physique. As a nutritionist and personal trainer, I’ll explain when you should start to reverse diet (and if you even need to).

Key Takeaways

  • The main purpose of reverse dieting is to gradually increase your calorie intake to determine your new maintenance intake; doing so helps to avoid overshooting your maintenance and gaining unnecessary fat.
  • Returning to a maintenance intake following a prolonged deficit is necessary to increase your metabolic rate, reduce hunger, increase satiety, mood, and energy levels, and improve health outcomes associated with energy deficiency.
  • You should start a reverse diet when you have achieved your weight loss goal, weight loss is no longer occurring despite your best efforts, adherence to the diet is no longer possible, you’ve dieted for a bodybuilding show, or your calories are so low that it becomes a health risk.

Why Should You Start A Reverse Diet?

Why should you start a reverse diet?

Reverse dieting is the process of gradually increasing calories from a calorie deficit intake up to a maintenance intake.

When you’ve spent longer periods in a calorie deficit, your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), the number of calories you burn daily, will decrease, making it harder to continue losing weight.

Your TDEE decreases as you diet because 1) your body is smaller and has less active tissue to fuel, 2) your non-exercise activity decreases with less energy available, and 3) metabolic adaptation.

Eventually, you will reach a point when you can no longer lose weight, whether that’s because it’s unsafe to lower your calories further or your adherence isn’t consistent, and the best course of action is to increase your calories and in turn, your TDEE.

You can do this by reverse dieting.

Reverse Dieting will result in:

  • Increases in metabolic rate (as you transition from deficit to energy balance)
  • Reversal in energy deficiency symptoms (amenorrhea, low testosterone, etc)
  • Reduced hunger
  • Improvements in mood, satiety, and energy level
  • Improved performance

However, it’s important to note that all of these benefits are possible simply by switching to a maintenance intake, meaning they are not specific to a reverse diet.

So why reverse diet rather than jump straight to a maintenance intake? Most people don’t know what their new maintenance intake is after dieting.

If you were to estimate your new maintenance and overshoot it, then you would gain more fat than necessary and likely feel uncomfortable. 

Therefore, the main advantage of reverse dieting is that you can find your maintenance intake in a more gradual, controlled way that will prevent unnecessary fat gain.

Most people who have just completed a dieting phase would likely agree that maintaining their newfound leanness by only gaining the minimal amount of fat necessary to return to maintenance (and achieve the above benefits) is preferable to gaining larger amounts of fat.

5 Considerations For When To Start A Reverse Diet


You’ll want to consider reverse dieting if: 

1. Your Fat Loss Goal Has Been Achieved

You’ve achieved your goal, you look shredded, and you feel accomplished! Now what? It’s time to get back to a maintenance intake by reverse dieting! 

Coming out of a deficit is important once you’ve reached your weight loss goal because sticking to these lower calories indefinitely to maintain this progress is not realistic and would negatively impact your quality of life. 

So after you’ve achieved your fat loss goal, the best course of action to stay as lean as possible (some fat gain is inevitable) is to find your new maintenance intake by reverse dieting.

2. Your Progress Has Stalled Despite Best Efforts

You should consider a reverse diet once progress has stalled, you are no longer losing weight or seeing body composition changes, and it’s not feasible to lower calories or increase activity further.

Once you reach this point, the best action to maintain your progress is to reverse diet and spend time in a maintenance phase.

By returning to maintenance, you can restore your hormones, improve your performance, and give yourself a mental break to be successful the next time you diet. 

Note: If your progress has stalled momentarily (not long-term), then you might want to consider a refeed day instead of entering a reverse diet phase.  

3. Adhering to the Diet Is No Longer Possible

If you reach the point where you can’t adhere to your diet, you should consider reverse dieting so that you can maintain the progress you have made while increasing your food intake to an intake that you can adhere to. 

Sticking to your diet might not be possible for mental reasons (unmotivated, mentally fatigued, emotional eating), physical reasons (extremely hungry, movement is lacking, health issues), or social reasons (wanting to eat out, go out with friends, participate in family events).

If you’re struggling with consistency, the best action is to take a break from your diet and enter a maintenance phase. A lack of consistency means a lack of progress, and spinning your wheels will only lead to frustration and disappointment. 

You would be better off returning to a maintenance intake and focusing on preparing for success in your next dieting phase.

4. You Just Dieted for a Bodybuilding Show

To compete in a bodybuilding show, you must get extremely lean to be competitive, which requires you to diet for an extended period. After the show, you can reverse diet to stay as lean as possible rather than gaining more fat than you want.

After a bodybuilding show, the priority is to increase your intake back to maintenance intake and restore your health, which requires you to regain body fat.

You could do this by jumping up to maintenance intake right away (without reverse dieting), but if you’re not sure what your new maintenance intake is, then there is a larger potential for fat gain.

Reverse dieting can help you return to maintenance gradually and prevent you from gaining more fat than necessary, which is often a better option for those who mentally struggle with putting on fat after being “stage lean.”

5. Your Calories Are so Low That It’s a Health Risk

If your calories are too low, 1000 calories or less for women or 1500 calories or less for men, you need to increase your calorie intake to support bodily functions.

Consuming enough calories is important so that your body has enough energy to support bodily functions like breathing, digestion, muscular contractions, etc. 

If your calories are too low, then your organs could start “shutting down,” so you have to be mindful about getting enough calories in.

To be clear, reverse dieting is not necessary to restore your health. You could immediately increase your intake to maintenance or higher, but reverse dieting is a better option for some.

Reverse dieting allows you to increase your intake gradually, which may be best if you’re mentally struggling with gaining fat too quickly or you physically struggle to increase your intake due to changes in appetite and digestion.

Example Reverse Diet 

Let’s walk through a reverse dieting example with a client who dieted for 16 weeks and achieved their goal weight of 140lbs. 

They ended their cutting phase at 1410 calories from 100g of carbs, 140g of protein, and 50g of fat.

For reference, if the client has a low-fat gain tolerance, they should only increase their calories by 50 per week. 

If the client has a moderate-to-high fat gain tolerance, they can increase their calories by 100-150 per week.

For this example, let’s assume the client has a moderate fat gain tolerance (they want to reduce unnecessary fat gain but want to get to their maintenance intake sooner rather than later).

  • Week 1 Adjustments: 1510 calories, 115g of carbs, 140g of protein, and 54g of fat.
  • Week 2 Adjustments: 1610 calories, 130g of carbs, 140g of protein, and 58g of fat.
  • Week 3 Adjustments: 1710 calories, 145g of carbs, 140g of protein, and 62g of fat.
  • Week 4 Adjustments: 1810 calories, 165g of carbs, 140g of protein, and 64g of fat.
  • Week 5 Adjustments: 1910 calories, 185g of carbs, 140g of protein, and 66g of fat.
  • Week 6: 1910 calories, 185g of carbs, 140g of protein, and 66g of fat.

By week 6, the client’s body weight has stabilized; therefore, we can determine that they have reached a maintenance intake. 

The goal would then be to stay at maintenance for at least two weeks before entering a muscle-building phase or to remain at maintenance for 6 to 12 weeks before another cutting phase.

Note: calories and macro math in the above example aren’t exact due to rounding.

How Quickly Can I Expect Results?

Your body will start to respond to the increase in calories right away; however, the changes will be minor in the beginning (especially with a low-fat tolerance approach), so you may only see or feel the effects of these changes later on.

When you reverse dieting by adding 50-100 calories per week, you’re essentially prolonging your dieting phase, but to a lesser degree. Think of this as slowly coming out of a deficit until you eventually reach a maintenance intake, at which point you start to maintain your weight.

When you have restored your calories to a maintenance intake, the most significant changes in metabolism, energy levels, mood, and satiety will occur. Depending on your approach, getting back to maintenance could take 4 to 6 weeks.

I also want to point out that some people who reverse diet will actually lose weight as they increase their calorie intake, which is often thought to be related to drastic increases in metabolism as a result of eating more calories.

What actually occurs when an individual loses weight while reverse dieting is an increase in non-exercise activity (NEAT) as calories increase. 

Most of the time, changes in NEAT are subconscious (i.e., fidgeting), so they’re often disregarded, but studies show that NEAT plays an important role whilst dieting because when energy is restricted, NEAT decreases (meaning you burn fewer calories per day).

Frequently Asked Questions: Starting A Reverse Diet

Is Reverse Dieting Necessary?

Reverse dieting is not necessary, but it can be helpful to find your new maintenance after dieting down.

Overshooting your new maintenance intake after a dieting phase will lead to unwanted fat gain.

Will Reverse Dieting Cause Fat Gain?

If calories are gradually increased to a maintenance level, reverse dieting will help minimize fat gain as much as possible.

However, there will always be some fat gain when increasing intake from a deficit to a maintenance level.

What Is The Difference Between A Refeed And A Reverse Diet?

A refeed is a planned increase in calories up to a predicted maintenance that lasts 1 to 2 days, followed by a return to your calorie deficit with the intention of prolonging your deficit.

A reverse diet is a gradual increase in calories up to maintenance with the intention of staying at maintenance and ending your diet. 

How Much Should Calories Increase Week-to-Week On A Reverse Diet?

Calories should be increased by 50-150 calories each week depending on your fat gain tolerance.

The goal is to increase your calorie intake week-to-week until your weight stabilizes and you find your maintenance intake.

Other Reverse Dieting Resources


Martins, C., Roekenes, J., Gower, B.A. et al. Metabolic adaptation is associated with less weight and fat mass loss in response to low-energy diets. Nutr Metab (Lond) 18, 60 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12986-021-00587-8

Longstrom JM, Colenso-Semple LM, Waddell BJ, Mastrofini G, Trexler ET, Campbell BI. Physiological, Psychological and Performance-Related Changes Following Physique Competition: A Case-Series. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2020 Apr 25;5(2):27. doi: 10.3390/jfmk5020027. PMID: 33467243; PMCID: PMC7739261.

Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014 Feb 27;11(1):7. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-11-7. PMID: 24571926; PMCID: PMC3943438.

About The Author

Amanda Parker

Amanda Parker is an author, nutrition coach, and Certified Naturopath.  She works with bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters to increase performance through nutrition and lifestyle coaching.

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